We have come to Alfred’s, a private club in London’s Mayfair, where Klitschko is a member. The interior is steeped in the eccentricities of the English gentry. Glass cabinets filled with smoking pipes are set alongside paintings of bulldogs. It seems an incongruous setting for a man who is a working-class hero in Ukraine, the country he eventually settled in as a teenager, and in Germany, where he was based for the vast majority of his career. But Klitschko says he forged an unbreakable bond with London following his epic fight against British boxer Anthony Joshua last year.
Before the bout, Klitschko and Joshua spoke of their mutual respect for one another, a refreshing antidote to the trash-talking that routinely accompanies modern title fights. The contest took place in front of 90,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium. Klitschko fought bravely against an opponent 14 years younger than him and came close to victory, but was eventually stopped in the 11th round.
He could have made millions by forcing a rematch but instead chose to retire. “I was cheered out by the audience, by the fans of Joshua,” he says. “I had lost, but my stock went up. The next step, when I was thinking yes or no for a rematch, I said no. My stock went up again.”
He revels in the irony that, though he has the record of an all-time great, it took a defeat for him to fully gain the respect of the boxing public. For much of his career, Klitschko was not widely loved. Despite towering over most boxers, his style was cautious, meticulous, often unspectacular. He failed to connect with fans in boxing’s lucrative American market. Does he feel under-appreciated? “I’ve been asked many times during my sporting career: ‘What do you think about your legacy?’” he says. “I didn’t care about my legacy. I just want to be myself. Will it be received well or not? I cannot really control it.”
Now at the end of his boxing career, can he look back at his achievements with pride? Klitschko rejects the notion. “If I’m going to be proud, I’ll stand still. Standing still means not moving forward. Standing still means falling back. If I think I’ve made it, I’m done. If I think I’m proud, I’m done. I’m not proud. I’m satisfied with my first career.”
Klitschko is fond of esoteric statements like this and projects the air of a deep thinker — hence our game of chess. Not that he has much to prove. He speaks four languages and has a PhD in sports science from the University of Kiev. The topic of his dissertation was “Pedagogic control over young athletes, ages 14 to 19, in the old Soviet Union”. The doctorate explains his nickname: Dr Steelhammer.
Klitschko has always been proactive about his career outside the ring. While he was still boxing, he began sidelines as an entrepreneur, investor, hotelier and philanthropist. For his next act, though, he wants to be considered something of a philosopher too. He has co-written a book, Challenge Management: What Managers Can Learn from a Top Athlete, featuring testimonials from Bill McDermott, chief executive of corporate tech giant SAP, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action-movie star who became governor of California.
Klitschko believes his experiences provide life lessons that can be transferred to politics and business. The idea of sporting champions as management gurus is well established. Football managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti have released leadership manuals designed to be consumed by C-suite executives. But Klitschko has taken things a step further. In 2016, he founded a programme at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, where students can take courses based on his theories.
In his book, he says that before any fight, he visualised the fighting style of his opponents while also imagining victory. He believes the same approach can work in any negotiation. “Internalise your winning pose,” writes Klitschko. “Save similar motivational pictures on your smartphone and have a look at them if you have doubts.”
Why not put such theories into practice? His brother Vitali is the mayor of Kiev, having been a key figure in the Maidan protests that opposed the rule of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. A war still rages between pro-government forces and Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country. Will Wladimir follow his brother into elected office? Klitschko says politics in Ukraine is no game. “One politician in the family is good enough... [Vitali] is a true fighter. He was born this way. I learnt how to become a fighter. The fight that he has today is longer than any other fight in his sporting career, and it’s the most complicated. Politics has no rules. In the boxing ring, you can get a bloody nose or a black eye. In politics, you can get a bullet in the head or dioxin in your food.”
With that, we move to the chess board.
WATCH | Wladimir Klitschko plays chess with the FT: